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Feature: Rolex Submariner vs Blancpain Fifty Fathoms

In 1953, something strange happened. Two watches, by two different brands, materialised in quick succession: the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms and the Rolex Submariner. One was a special forces military project, the other a commercially available product that could be purchased by amateurs and professionals alike. Here’s the strange part: despite being released within just a few months of each other, they were almost identical. How is this possible?

If the freakishness of this coincidence isn’t fully coming across, perhaps a look back a few years before either of these two watches existed might help. Remember, this was decades before the International Standards Organisation assembled ISO 2281 and the follow-up ISO 6425, the recognised guidelines for water-resistant watches.

These days, a watch must meet a strict set of requirements—including water-resistance to 100m, luminous indicators on a high-contrast dial, and a timing device such as a bezel—to be classified as a dive watch, but in the 1950s, it was anyone’s guess. Deep-sea diving was as new as new, historically only providing a glance under the waves without the protection of a submarine.

The Oyster, Rolex’s 1926 water-resistant watch, was nothing more than a watch sealed at the case and crown with threaded seams and rubber gaskets; impervious to water, yes, but not a dive watch as we know it today. The dial was white with printed roman numerals, the bezel a coin-edge, decorative affair.

Not much really happened until 1952, when Captain Robert Maloubier and Lieutenant Claude Riffaud of the French Navy founded a special forces diving group in the wake of technological advancements in scuba gear. Maloubier’s team were to put themselves to the ultimate test—and by association, their equipment, too.

Unfortunately, given how new the field of diving was, no one actually made the equipment Maloubier needed—in particular, a watch. Sure, companies like Panerai had made watches for divers since the 30s, but this was new territory, new depths, and the old tech just didn’t cut it anymore.

After some searching, Blancpain CEO and avid diver Jean-Jacques Fiechter agreed to make Maloubier his watch, a design which Maloubier was very particular about. It had to have water resistance to Fifty Fathoms—that’s around 91m—a high contrast dial with big, glowing markers, and a bezel with 60-minute timing indicators on it.

Blancpain set to work making this watch, to be ready the following year; meanwhile, Swiss oceanographer and engineer Jacques Piccard, alongside US Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh, prepared to take a trip to Earth’s lowest point, the Mariana Trench. Just shy of 11km deep, the Mariana Trench required a vehicle whose spherical habitat was protected by walls 13cm thick. The sphere kept those on the inside safe from the crushing 1.25t of pressure per centimetre; on the outside of the sphere, however, was a straggler. A Rolex.

To be strapped onto the outside of an underwater vessel at the ocean’s deepest point required this particular Rolex to be something rather special. Rather unimaginatively named the Deep Sea Special, this thing had an 18mm-thick crystal and a 36mm-thick case, and was tested in mid-1953 at a depth of a 1km, building to the 1960 descent to the literal bottom of the ocean.

What does this have to do with our two watches? The point is that Rolex had the ocean on its mind. Perhaps it, one of Switzerland’s youngest watch brands, had caught wind of Blancpain—the oldest Swiss watch brand—accepting Maloubier’s proposition. Or perhaps it was simply looking for a way to further its credibility as a maker of water-resistant watches. Either way, the Deep Sea Special tells us that Rolex had very specifically turned its attention to the deep, albeit in a very extreme and rather unfocused way.

Back at Blancpain, the Fifty Fathoms was receiving its final touches—namely a dial-mounted moisture indicator—and was made ready for military issue. And it wasn’t just issued to the French navy—the US, Israeli, Spanish and German navies also jumped on board. As for civilian sales, Lip, a company that had previously turned down Maloubier’s pitch to build the Fifty Fathoms in the first place, describing it as having ‘no future’, rather ironically licensed the design for sale in France, with one notable difference: given that the military version used heavily radioactive materials such as Promethium 147, the civilian models were badged as ‘No Radiations’.

A raving success for Blancpain; food for thought for Rolex. The Turn-O-Graph, Rolex’s latest sporting model, was released around about the same time as the Fifty Fathoms, and featured a number of design details that were not entirely dissimilar: the 100m water resistance, for example, a feature of the Oyster case design evolved from the 1926 original; or the high contrast dial with glowing markers and hands, similar to those found on the Deep Sea Special; and a turning bezel, a carryover from the 1937 Zerographe.

It isn’t so much the coincidental specification of the Turn-O-Graph that brings this story to its conclusion; a little later that year, Rolex followed up with an undesignated watch—clearly based on the Turn-O-Graph—which had been lightly modified for dive use. When that watch was officially launched the following year, it was christened with a suitably nautical title, one that we all recognise today: ‘Submariner’.

It’ll never be known exactly why the Submariner came to be in the way that it did, but given early Rolex’s history for reading the market and reacting fast, there’s a strong suggestion that some quick thinking and a little bit of luck helped it get a foothold in the diving market so soon after the Fifty Fathoms was released. It was a defining moment for the brand, the first steps down a road to legend; where might it be now if things had panned out just a little differently?

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